When Michelle Obama planted a community garden in the South Lawn of the White House in 2009, the First Lady made clear the priorities she would have as first lady: food and nutrition. Michelle’s advocacy of healthy eating at the national level is symbolic of the expanding role of the government in twenty-first century food policy. As the country begins to prioritize fresh, natural, and organic ingredients, the public health sector is also focusing more on food politics. However, despite the increased attention brought about by recent food movements to the cause of pesticide-free and “natural” foods, organic farming (and access to organic foods) should not be the priority of government food programs until national food security for all Americans is first established.
A Burgeoning Movement
The national multi-pronged food movement did not start in the White House. With the influx of food-related documentaries and books such as Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Inc., and King Corn, Americans have slowly become critical of the food industry. One movement, focusing on sustainable food, stresses that food should promote pleasure and health—two aspects that the fast food chains, in particular, largely ignore. Likewise, environmental and fitness movements, which campaign for healthier, more nutritious, organic, and local foods, have also picked up steam in recent years. However, large organic food sections in grocery stores and terms such as “locavore” were not always the norm.
The Government’s Role
In the 1970s, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz under President Nixon implemented revolutionary policy changes under his motto “get big or get out.” Essentially, Butz’s policy was to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” a goal that, critics have often cited, was a key force behind the rise of agribusiness at the expense of small farmers over the past few decades. Since Butz’s time, subsidies to farmers have consistently helped to keep food prices low.
However, according to the Slow Food USA movement’s president, Josh Viertel, cheaper food has not come without a cost. He notes that instead of focusing on the common health, environmental, economic, and food values of the U.S., the U.S.’s agricultural policies actually “run counter to those priorities.” In fact, he says that Americans would be surprised to know that “the crops that are worst for us and the environment get the vast majority of the federal support, while those that we know we should eat more of, like fruits and vegetables, get next to nothing.”
This comes as a surprise because many American consumers have, over the past decade, begun to dramatically change their eating habits. Currently, the organic food sector is the fastest growing section of the food market. In fact, sales of organic products have increased steadily from $23 billion in 2002 to $52 billion in 2008. Local foods have also received greater support as the number of farmers’ markets increased 17% between 2010 and 2011, according to the USDA.
Despite significant shifts, the government has been relatively slow to change its food and agricultural policies. Though the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 appropriated $78 million for research into organic farming techniques, organic foods still received zero dollars out of the total $8 billion subsidies paid out in 2004. However, other programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, have expanded their policies in light of these new consumer shifts. The acceptance of SNAP benefits at local farmers’ markets has garnered enthusiastic support from the public. The USDA reports that from 2008 to 2009, the total value of SNAP redemptions at farmers’ markets doubled from $2 million to $4 million. Additionally, the SNAP program was provided with $20 million to fund pilot programs to further encourage purchasing fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.
National Food Security Comes First
With an estimated 50 million Americans currently experiencing food insecurity, the government’s reluctance to fund organic food initiatives is understandable. Though the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) goal is to encourage nation-wide healthy eating, Deputy Director of the CNPP, Robert Post, reminded the HPR that, “At the end of the day, [the CNPP has] to be concerned that everywhere in this country, we have access to food and healthy food.” Before organic and local foods can become the priority of the federal government, basic food security must be established.
Still, the CNPP’s sister agency, the Food Nutrition Service (FNS), is responsible for the USDA’s nutrition assistance programs that have, in recent years, expanded to include more options for the one out of every four Americans reliant on the bureau’s aid. New school lunch programs mandate that fruits and vegetables be served in every meal. More standards include increasing foods with whole grains, reducing fat and sodium levels, and adhering to proper portion sizes.
Despite some improvements to national food policy, problems still remain. In particular, food deserts, or locations where access to healthy food is limited, are still surprisingly prevalent in the U.S. In the battle to provide the 23.5 million Americans who live in food deserts with access to nutritious foods, the government now supplies funding to retailers, grocers, and marketers to encourage the building of centers with nutritious and healthy foods in food deserts.
Private Organizations Take the Lead
In the past several years, food think tank companies have sprung up as key players in the sustainable food movement. Slow Food USA, with the mantra “Good, Clean, and Fair,” is taking charge in the United States by building gardens in public schools, changing school lunch menus, and running cooking classes that reach approximately 150,000 children. In conjunction with private programs, organizations like Slow Foods USA have also been politically involved in fighting for the creation of a better Farm Bill.
“Right now it is easier to feed our kids Froot Loops than real fruit,” Viertel says about the current food price disparities, “The Slow Food community believes we can do better.” Viertel’s organization supports various campaigns from stopping gas fracking adjacent to sustainable agriculture land in Colorado to working toward fair wages and reasonable housing for farmworkers. “We believe it is going to take a whole lot of engaged individuals working together to drive good policy,” Viertel says.
Other companies such as the Boston-based Oldways are encouraged by the changes the USDA has made in its food policies. President Sara Baer-Sinnott comments on federal programs like “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” and the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative that have increased awareness for healthy eating.
“There’s a lot of hope,” Baer-Sinnott said about the multitude of programs offered by the USDA, “Some of these messages were much harder to sell twenty years ago.”
The Future of Food Policy
The U.S. is in the midst of a lifestyle shift. Organic and local food advocacy has crept into all forms of media and popular culture. Carried on the backs of formidable organizations and programs, the food movement continues to progress rapidly. But in a time of such economic uncertainty, the government cannot look to increase financial backing to organic and local food causes until basic issues of national nourishment are satisfied and access problems, like food deserts, are stomped out.
Photo Credit: White House Flickr